In this article I will be discussing one of my favorite women at Tudor court – the fearless Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Somerset. Mary had the bravery that wasn’t often shown by a woman during this time period. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she thought was right.
It was her father who was quoted as saying that Mary was, “too wise for a woman” – one of the reasons I love her so much.
This post was originally a podcast that was transcribed into an article – if you’d rather listen to it you can do so here:
Family Ties – The Howards
Mary Howard was born around 1519 to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey (later to be Duke of Norfolk) and his second wife Lady Elizabeth Stafford.
You might recognize the name Elizabeth Stafford – this Elizabeth Stafford was the daughter of the ill-fated Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham.This means Mary had both Norfolk and Buckingham blood in her veins.
Mary was the only daughter of Thomas Howard and received an education that was appropriate to her standing. It’s been said that she was both beautiful and smart. A double threat – both traits are something that we’ll see come into play a little later.
A Marriage Arranged
In December of 1529, when Mary was ten years old, Henry VIII asked her father, now the Duke of Norfolk to allow his son (Mary’s older brother) Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey to become a companion of his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy at Windsor Castle. At the same time a marriage was arranged between Mary and Fitzroy.
While many have said the marriage was Norfolk’s niece Anne Boleyn’s idea, it had always been maintained by Norfolk that it was the idea of the King, however, the marriage between Fitzroy and Mary Howard had definitely been promoted by Anne to help strengthen her ties to the throne.
Like the later marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves there was no dowry expected with this marriage, which was unusual for the time. This may indicate the influence that Anne Boleyn had over the king.
Elizabeth Stafford, Mary’s mother, was totally against the marriage. Whether she blamed Anne Boleyn for the breakdown of her marriage with Norfolk or was disgusted with the amount of control she had in the negotiations, she was not happy and made it known. Because of this conflict she was banished from court.
Marriage to Fitzroy
When King Henry and Anne Boleyn went to Calais in October 1532, they brought with them Fitzroy, Mary Howard and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Fitzroy and Surrey both stayed in France after the English monarch’s departure – Fitzroy was a member of King Francis’ Privy Chamber and Surrey was also a member of his entourage.
While Fitzroy and Surrey were away in France, Anne Boleyn and King Henry were married – Anne was now Queen and Mary Howard was one of her ladies in waiting. The young men were called back to England in August of 1533 and merely three months later Henry Fitzroy and Mary Howard were married at Hampton Court Palace. She was was fourteen and he was fifteen years old.
Because of their youth the couple was not allowed to live together. Instead they went back to their respective homes. Henry VIII believed that his late brother Arthur’s death may have occurred because he had intercourse at too young an age. This was also believed to be what caused the death of Katherine of Aragon’s brother, Juan.
An interesting note: A few months before the marriage of the young couple, Pope Clement was proposing the marriage of the Earl of Surrey with Lady Mary, the king’s daughter. The Pope was hoping that the Howard clan would help promote the cause of Katherine of Aragon.
Mary Becomes a Widow
Unfortunately, Mary and Fitzroy would never be able to consummate their marriage – in July 1536, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset and only male child of Henry VIII died.
Since the marriage had never been consummated, King Henry denied his 17 year old widowed daughter in law the vast estates she should have inherited as the widow of the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Mary, still young, could not remarry until her jointure was settled. King Henry decided to keep it all for himself instead.
Because of the King’s greed, Mary was forced to live off the hand-outs of her father, the Duke of Norfolk and to sell her jewels in order to have money to live.
Expecting her powerful father to help her with his connection to the King, Mary was disappointed by his efforts and had threatened to confront the king in person, herself.
Feeling desperate, Mary wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell asking him to intercede. Cromwell brought Archbishop Cranmer into the fold and Cranmer confirmed that the marriage had been valid even though it had not been consummated. This was exactly what Mary needed, progress was being made in her case.
This matter of Mary’s jointure was not resolved until 1540, after the dissolution of the monasteries – Mary finally received some property and income to live on.
An Accomplice to Love
Around the same time that Mary was fighting for what was rightfully hers, she was helping Margaret Douglas in her clandestine love affair with her uncle, Lord Thomas Howard. Mary was present, as possibly a look-out, when these two lovers were able to have some quiet time together. All that came to an end when the king discovered the couple had a pre-contract to marry. Both Thomas and Margaret were sent to the Tower and Mary was saved because the couple insisted that she never knew of the pre-contract.
The Seymours and Howards
In the meantime, Mary was being linked with Thomas Seymour for a possible marriage alliance. If she accepted this proposal she would not get what she had been working so hard for. Mary was not interested in marrying Seymour – it was merely her father’s way of creating ties with the new queen’s family. Her brother the Earl of Surrey was even more upset about the match – he saw the Seymours as ‘upstarts’ and didn’t want them associated with his noble line.
Interestingly enough, the Earl of Surrey had the hots for Anne Stanhope, wife of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Stanhope had rebuffed Surrey. When Hertford found out he was furious and it caused a lot of friction between the men.
It’s been said that in 1537, Surrey was imprisoned at Windsor Castle because he punched Edward Seymour in the face – the reason? Because Seymour suggested that Surrey favored the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Surrey wasn’t imprisoned long.
Mary and the Queens
When Anne of Cleves became queen it was thought that Mary would have a place in her household, however, Anne had brought ladies of her own and did not have room for her.
Mary’s cousin, Katherine Howard, when she became queen, made Mary a Lady of the Privy Chamber…under the supervision of get this, Margaret Douglas.
After the execution of Queen Katherine, the Howard clan was once again lacking favor with the King. Both Mary Howard and Margaret Douglas sent away from court for seventeen months.
Again in 1546, Norfolk discussed the marriage of his daughter to Thomas Seymour. Around this time he had also proposed a few marriages to further bind together the Howard and Seymour families. In addition to the proposed union of his daughter to Thomas Seymour he also negotiated some of his grandchildren as matches for three of Edward Seymour’s children. On 10 June 1546, Henry VIII gave his permission and approval to the proposal.
The Fall of the Howard Men
Once again, Mary was not interested in marrying Thomas Seymour. She discussed this problem with her brother (Surrey) who suggested she discuss it with the King and use her charm to become a mistress to the king – this would help in advancing not only her interests but that of the Howards as well.
Mary was insulted and disgusted by her brother’s plan and said she would rather cut her own throat than go along with it. Mary and Henry Howard’s relationship would never be the same again and this would mark the beginning of Surrey’s downfall.
When her father and brother were arrested in December 1546, Mary did nothing to save them. She even gave testimony against her brother.
Mary told the council that her brother had such a distaste for men who were “made” and not of royal birth and he said “if God called away the King they should smart for it.” She went on to tell them that he replaced the coronet with a crown on his coat of arms.
When Surrey’s home was searched they found more evidence against him – a plate with the arms of Edward the Confessor, even though the only person in the kingdom who could claim that was the king.
She also told them about the conversation her brother had with her about becoming the king’s mistress.
Both her father and brother were charged with treason and sentenced to death. Only her brother would make it to the block because eleven days later King Henry VIII was dead. Norfolk’s sentence was halted and he remained in prison until the reign of Queen Mary.
In the End
Mary raised her brother’s children after his execution and apparently was granted money by Edward VI for doing so – he said that he knew of no finer place for the children to be educated.
The date of death varies for Mary Howard – what I do know is that she most likely died in December. It’s the year that varies – some reports say 1555, others 1556 or 57.
In her three decades of life, Mary Howard witnessed a lot of drama at Tudor court. Especially during the reign of her father-in-law.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir